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Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

As a boy, William Bellman commits one small, cruel act: killing a bird with his slingshot. Little does he know the unforeseen and terrible consequences of the deed, which is soon forgotten amidst the riot of boyhood games. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to be a man blessed by fortune—until tragedy strikes and the stranger in black comes. Then he starts to wonder if all his happiness is about to be eclipsed. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, William enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business.

And Bellman & Black is born.

Deftly written with gorgeous language and phrasing, Diane Setterfield's newest novel, Bellman & Black, is sure to resonate with readers. Subtitled A Ghost Story, the novel fulfills the role in an unexpected manner: it isn't a specter or monster that haunts the main character Bellman and the reader, it's everyday actions, intentional and otherwise.

Bellman & Black tells the tale of William Bellman, a man blessed with good health, good fortune, and happiness. No one would dispute that Bellman works hard what he has. Smart, attractive, and successful, Bellman leads a charmed life. But what is his happiness worth? Because, as Bellman comes to realize, all actions have a consequences and time always comes at a price.

Bellman's story is interspersed with information and anecdotes about the rook, which plays both a literal and symbolic role in Bellman's life. These short chapters are beautifully written and are sometimes factual, sometimes anecdotal. The rook itself becomes a central character in the novel, who, if not mentioned for a period time, becomes, curiously, almost missed.

It's hard to describe the premise of Bellman & Black. What struck me most after completing the novel was how little actual action was contained in its pages compared to the amount of thought and contemplation spurred by the story. This may come as a surprise to some who see the subtitle A Ghost Story and expect the typical scary story. To be clear, Bellman & Black is most definitely a ghost story - and I would say it is, in many ways, much scarier than any paranormal story might be. Bellman's story forces readers to consider the price of their own lives... To consider the happiness and fortune they've been blessed with in their lives and how much payment might be owned to the figurative man in black that haunts Bellman's every conscious - and often unconscious - thought.

I haven't read Setterfield's first, and immensely popular novel, The Thirteenth Tale, but, after Bellman & Black, I feel I need to. Setterfield is a powerful storyteller who leads readers with a light hand to thoughts and feelings that, even if we might now acknowledge them often, have a steady weight that influences our lives and choices. Bellman & Black is not to be missed.

Atria/Emily Bestler Books, November 2013,Hardcover, ISBN:9781476711959, 336 pgs.


  1. My review posted today. I did not enjoy this one as much as you. There were aspects that I did enjoy, but it was huge failure to me and nothing, at all, like The Thirteenth Tale, which was absolutely wonderful.

    This one was not scary or haunting to me, at all.


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